Research article

Decolonize this art history: Imagining a decolonial art history programme at Kalamazoo College

  • Anne Marie Butler orcid logo (Kalamazoo College, USA)
  • Christine Hahn orcid logo (Kalamazoo College, USA)


This article presents a case study of a decolonized curriculum development in the Art History programme at the small liberal arts institution Kalamazoo College (Michigan, USA). It discusses the curriculum plan, methods for learning, assessment and potential applications for this approach beyond the case study. Paying attention to questions about the origins of art history, and its long-established methods and canon within the Western academy, this article proposes that any approach to decolonizing an art history curriculum must take into account the frameworks and methods of the knowledge systems it employs, must continually assess, reflect and hold accountable those who participate in its implementation and maintenance, and, importantly, must recognize that decolonization work is a necessarily messy and ongoing process.

Keywords: decolonization, art history, curriculum, introductory survey

How to Cite: Butler, A. M., & Hahn, C. (2021). Decolonize this art history: Imagining a decolonial art history programme at Kalamazoo College. London Review of Education, 19(1).

Rights: Copyright © 2021 Butler and Hahn.



Published on
07 Jul 2021
Peer Reviewed


At Kalamazoo College (Michigan, USA), a small liberal arts college of 1,400 students, more than 84 per cent of students take an art history course during their four years of study. Kalamazoo College is situated on the stolen land of the Council of the Three Fires – the Ojibwe, the Odawa and the Potawatomi. Since the 2010s, the college has taken some concrete steps towards recognizing its complicity in structures of oppression, including settler colonialism. Yet, as an institution that exists within interlocking social oppressions and corresponding justice and liberation struggles, such as Black Lives Matter, Rhodes Must Fall, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, much work remains to be done. During summer 2020, Anne Marie Butler and Christine Hahn, the two permanent faculty members of the Art History programme, worked with two student researchers, Julia Woods (2020) and Dominic Moore (2021), to create a curriculum for majors and non-majors alike that features multiple, reinforcing opportunities to engage with visual art utilizing a decolonial framework. This new pathway includes: two seminar courses that bookend a student’s journey through the curriculum; engagement with decolonial theory threaded throughout each course within the major and minor sequence; the embedding of decolonial practice in our course design and pedagogy; and linking the curriculum to other departments and programmes on campus for cross-fertilization and interdisciplinary engagement.

By decolonize, we mean to redress the mere inclusion of diversity in courses and curricula that remain otherwise adherent to colonial knowledges. Instead, we begin with geographies, genders, sexualities and Indigenous methodologies that have been economically and culturally depleted by colonialism and its continued ideological and material reinforcement through what Nelson Maldonado-Torres (2011: 1) calls ‘the colonizing turn … the paradigm of discovery and newness that also included the gradual propagation of capitalism, racism, the modern/gender system, and the naturalization of the death ethics of war’. Our multimodal approach to constructing a decolonized curriculum draws on the scholarship of María Lugones (2007), Leanne Simpson (2004) and Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) to ask: how do we reconcile the attempt at decolonizing our discipline with the knowledge that nothing within the Western academy can ever be truly decolonized, and how do we reckon with our own positionalities as non-Indigenous scholars and continue to be humble and self-critical while actively working on our own colonialist mindsets?

This article consists of a series of sections that address different aspects of our larger research questions. First, how can an art history programme at a small liberal arts college address legacies of colonization and racism, and what would this effort look like? Second, what are the theories, frameworks and motivations to support that change? And third, what are the practical approaches and applications? The first section of this article profiles this case study by introducing Kalamazoo College, the background of the Art History programme and the positionality of the authors. The second section discusses why art history might be an apt field in which to attempt a decolonized curriculum. We then turn to the plan and development of the curriculum to set up the learning frameworks and models that we assert are conducive to a decolonial curriculum. We then detail our programme goals. A section on methods for learning follows the plan and development in order to set out details of how the curriculum plan is enacted. In the fifth section, we outline some methods by which we assess the students, ourselves and the effectiveness of the curriculum overall. Finally, we discuss potential applications of this research within our institution and for other disciplines and institutions. Throughout this article, we reiterate the decolonial framework of the approach by employing scholarship on decolonial theory and on decolonial pedagogy more specifically. This article proposes that any approach to decolonizing an art history curriculum must take into account the frameworks and methods of the knowledge systems it employs, must continually assess, reflect and hold accountable those who participate in its implementation and maintenance, and, importantly, must recognize that decolonization work is a necessarily messy and ongoing process.

Case study profile

At Kalamazoo College, departments typically range from four to eight faculty members. There is a joint department of Art History and Studio Art with three full-time Studio Art faculty members, one full-time Art History faculty member and one full-time faculty member with a joint appointment in Art History and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Kalamazoo College is one among a cohort of 13 liberal arts colleges based in the Midwest United States. Although Art History is one of the only majors on campus and in our consortium that is staffed with only two dedicated faculty members, one of the strengths of being part of such a small department is that we exercise a greater degree of control over the shape of our course design and curriculum.

In 2017, a student researcher working with Hahn compiled the coursework description for introductory courses in art history from 84 different institutions around the United States. With some variation, the vast majority use a chronological and region-based approach to their introductory sequence that overwhelmingly prioritizes white European art and artists. Like the majority of art history departments housed at colleges and universities, the original art history curriculum at Kalamazoo College was designed with an Italian Renaissance backbone. Of the eight courses that were routinely taught biennially, three courses were broad, introductory surveys of Western painting and sculpture. Three electives studied Italian art more specifically, with the Renaissance covered over a two-quarter sequence and a third course in Baroque. Survey courses moved sequentially from ancient Greece and Rome to the Italian Renaissance and concluded at the end of the nineteenth century with French Impressionism. When an adjunct was available, twentieth-century art was offered, but the primary range of course offerings was chronological, focused on Western Europe, and primarily on the Italian Renaissance. The abundance of survey courses such as these are often the result of a Eurocentric model of ‘coverage’. Embedded in the notion of coverage is the idea that knowledge is finite and contained.

We inherited this curriculum reflecting Western colonial thought, but we were eager to think beyond it. The idea for this project began in 2019 during a meeting about Art History curriculum goals. We discussed our desires to broaden course offerings so as to move away from the white, male, European canon. As we thought more about our courses, it became clear that shifting the entire curriculum would be in the best service of our students. This perspective aligns with scholars such as Andrea Riley-Mukavetz (2018: 125) who has pointed out that when individual decolonial or ethnic studies courses are offered, students may take only one such class and not return to these ideas throughout their college career. By foregrounding decolonization throughout our curriculum, we can ensure that in the Art History programme, students encounter the intellectual traditions of people of colour as centred throughout each art history course they take.

Therefore, in creating new goals for our curriculum, we move away from notions of coverage and the survey. Neither small nor large art history departments can cover every era and geography, nor could they employ enough specialists to do so. As two scholars whose research agendas have focused on topics outside the European canon, but who were both trained in the Western academy, Butler and Hahn have been required to learn the traditional art historical canons in addition to their fields of specialization. They can draw on this knowledge in the classroom to give more context to some discussions. However, they are also well positioned to help students cultivate shifts in consciousness, in which mainstream norms, perspectives and assumptions are brought to light, and multiple alternative norms, perspectives and assumptions are explored.

It is not only the content, but also the methods and the frameworks that concern us. Therefore, in place of ‘coverage’, we emphasize learning and applying critical tools of inquiry. A decolonized approach to understanding the multiple and complex histories of visual art must begin with openness and curiosity. We aim to pry loose the grip of Eurocentric notions of art as universal, timeless and unidirectional. This means that our course goals become less about who made what and when, and who influenced who and what. We instead prioritize decolonization as a method and set of questions that can be applied not only to the visual objects we study in a course, but also to the method we use to study it.

We also acknowledge our positionalities as one Korean American person and one white American person within the American academy and at a primarily white institution. Our own positionality as non-Indigenous scholars means that we will have to be acutely self-reflective and self-critical. Following Tuck and Yang (2012: 3), who remind us that the ‘joining [of settler colonial structuring and Indigenous critiques] cannot be too easy, too open, too settled’, we approach this project with a commitment to sit with our uneasiness and to return to it whenever we become too complacent in our solidarity. Nina Asher (2009: 395) asserts that one’s own inescapable imbrication within structures of colonization necessitates that instructors engage in self-reflection and active decolonization of themselves. Self-decolonization acknowledges that all people with a formal, Western education are products of what María Lugones (2007: 189) calls ‘the colonial/modern gender system’, in which gender is the major organizing structure at the intersection of colonialism and racism. To combat this colonialist framework, our curriculum is attentive to materials and methods from Indigenous and other non-white women scholars, and to scholars of colour who represent diverse genders and sexualities, while we engage in frequent self-assessment and reflection.

In light of the ease with which our programme, or any programme attempting to go against multiple grains, might slip into patterns that replicate hegemony rather than combat it, part of this project must also be the recognition that, as Tuck and Yang (2012) explicate, ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’. We must maintain sharp awareness of the tendency to ‘domesticate decolonization’ by adopting it into part of a broader social justice agenda, and that true decolonization is the return of stolen lands and the ability of Indigenous people to self-determine their lives, practices and relationships to the land (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 2–3). We also recognize that decolonization work will never be done. Decolonization of curricula, classes, behaviours and minds is an ongoing process that is as much about individuals decolonizing themselves as it is about classes that present some of the tools with which they might learn to do so.

Why art history?

Visual art is used as a measure of culture, the scale for which is typically based on an appeal to European sensibilities. Thus, like writing, art history is more historically imbricated in cultural imperialism than other academic disciplines. Given its roots in early modern Europe, and subsequent growth and development during the nineteenth-century era of European colonization, it is hardly accidental that the discipline of art history is tightly intertwined with coloniality (Dean, 2006: 30). And yet, artistic practice lies at the core of decolonial praxis. Therese Kaufmann (2011: n.p.) argues that ‘It is not in spite of, but rather specifically because of its entanglement in the socio-economic transformations of the knowledge society … that the field of art is seen as a site of resistance to exactly those conditions.’ As Simon Sheikh (2009: 5) contends:

The field of art has become – in short – a field of possibilities, of exchange and comparative analysis. It has become a field for alternatives, proposals and models, and can, crucially, act as a cross field, an intermediary between different fields, modes of perception and thinking, as well as between very different positions and subjectivities.

It is thus precisely because of the ambivalent position of art within cognitive capitalism that artistic practice is able to operate both inside and outside the fixed categories within societies of control (Kaufmann, 2011).

Yet despite its emancipatory possibilities, art history has, for the most part, maintained its traditional borders and boundaries as a discipline. Categories and chronologies based on Western art production remain the defining characteristic of the vast majority of art history curricula at both undergraduate and graduate levels across the United States. Instructors continue to rely on the traditional art historical canon, although it is already widely critiqued as ‘a mechanism of oppression [and a] guardian of privilege’ (Gayed and Angus, 2018: 229). Typically, only the larger universities are thought of as having resources to offer courses beyond the traditional Western and Eastern canons.

In his monograph on queer South Asian art histories, Alpesh Patel (2017: 1) asks, while writing relatively unknown works by artists of South Asian descent into the Western academy, ‘does making [these marginalized artists and artworks] visible achieve the inclusivity that is implied in such a project?’ We could ask the same of our curriculum decolonization project: does enacting change within the structure of the institution create the decolonization that we seek? We know that the mere inclusion of diverse subject matter does not equal diversity, anti-racism or decolonization, and we acknowledge that no curriculum that exists within the Western academy can ever be truly decolonized (Elsner, referenced in Grant and Price, 2020: 25). However, precisely because of its colonial roots, as well as its seeming reticence to change, art history is one field where the decolonization process may prove particularly fruitful.

We therefore understand decolonization as a process, and one that will never be finished. James D’Emilio summarizes that ‘a decolonized art history looks beyond diversifying canons, curricula, and practitioners. It recognizes that we now study, teach, and display art with culturally specific methods whose universal claims reflect early modern and modern European hegemony’ (quoted in Grant and Price, 2020: 21). Structures of higher education rooted within this colonized system, from knowledge building in academic fields to the neoliberal academy, implicate all who participate in them. Asher (2009: 395) argues that a ‘curriculum that relies on fixed, essentialist notions of identity and culture is framed and limited by legacies of colonialism … contributing, ultimately, to an oppressive and anti-intellectual agenda’. Despite the many challenges of this project, we undertook this initiative because a decolonized curriculum in art history, particularly at the undergraduate level, is a critical step in creating a new generation of students versed in decolonial visual language and equipped with methods by which they can undertake decolonization processes in other areas of their lives. The discipline of art history must do a better job of cultivating and mentoring the next generation of visual arts museum directors, practitioners, scholars and citizens. We believe that helping students find ways to decolonize their own lives and practices is a crucial step in working toward more just academic and cultural frameworks, and we will begin with our classrooms.

Plan and development

A decolonial curriculum must not only decentre whiteness, maleness and Eurocentrism; it must also actively utilize decolonial methodologies and ways of knowing and learning. Achille Mbembe (2016: 32–3) has summarized that Western epistemic traditions see the learner and the knowledge as separate. Such traditions:

rest on a division between mind and world, or between reason and nature as an ontological a priori … [resulting in a] hegemonic notion of knowledge production [that] has generated discursive scientific practices and has set up interpretive frames that make it difficult to think outside of these frames … [and that] also actively represses anything that is actually articulated, thought and envisioned from outside of these frames.

To decolonize our approach to student learning and assessment, we must be aware of how white, Eurocentric thought permeates higher education, examples of which include individual perfectionism, focusing on the holiness of the written word, and the development of a scarcity mindset that tells oneself, ‘I am the only who can do this work’. A decolonized curriculum helps students to identify these hallmarks of Western colonial structures and to actively resist and combat these embedded thought processes (Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, n.d.).

Educators are often familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, a framework of learning that categorizes ways of knowing in a pyramid formation. At the base, Bloom situates remembering as the broad foundation upon which learning will rest. As one moves up the pyramid, remembering becomes understanding, then applying, analysing, evaluating and, finally, at the pinnacle of the pyramid, creating. Traditional art history classes tend to mirror Bloom’s taxonomy. Survey courses at the 100-level place an emphasis on remembering (memorizing images, artists and dates), understanding (reading historical and scholarly texts) and applying (writing papers and taking examinations). Topics-based elective courses draw on the same format, with an even more circumscribed set of content, for example, in courses titled Baroque Art and Impressionism. Although it was not Bloom’s original intent, pedagogical methods using this taxonomy often frame ways of knowing as a hierarchical, linear process in which knowledge is finite and contained. In this way, Bloom’s taxonomy can reinforce both educational and cultural inequities when used in course design and pedagogical practices (Berger, 2018).

Our curriculum redesign instead draws upon Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) theory of knowledge, in which knowing and learning are understood as iterative, holistic processes that take place on a continuum rather than a linear hierarchy. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) characterize knowledge as rhizomatic, referring to a type of plant root in which there is no defined beginning or end. Within the discipline of art history, knowledge organization has followed the root–tree system, where artists beget artists in a long chain of influence stretching from the mists of time into the future. The practice of decolonized art history, however, is better characterized by Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987: 7) rhizome, those ‘ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles’. Such a diffuse model of knowledge organization is integral to a curriculum that aims to challenge power structures within, as well as outside, the academy.

With ideas about knowledge as iterative and rhizomatic, we began our curriculum redesign by rewriting our programme goals, for which we drew upon Ana Tuazon’s aims for her decolonized art history classroom. Tuazon’s strategies include ensuring that students develop a critical understanding of the social and cultural conditions that cultivated modernism, such as patriarchy and colonialism (Hickey and Tuazon, 2019: 14). We ultimately developed three core programme goals:

  1. students understand, critique and propose alternatives to narratives of art history using critical thinking skills, visual analysis and art historical research

  2. students understand and express how images and objects accumulate meaning in different contexts

  3. students demonstrate agency and self-reflection regarding their own learning and positionalities.

Along with the programme goals, a new set of student learning outcomes (SLOs) are designed to emphasize skill-building in applying the tools of critical inquiry, self-reflection and awareness to objects of study and researcher–student positionality in relationship to those objects. For example, students will learn to recognize dominant narratives and structures, to use written and oral forms of analysis, along with methods of research such as personal narrative and oral history and to consider their own relationship to, and interest in, the study of various objects. Our new programme goals and SLOs are focused on the development of critical inquiry skills, as opposed to the accumulation and consumption of a circumscribed set of content.

Methods for learning

Scholars often point to tensions between decolonization and curricula when they critique decolonization efforts within the academy: by design, a curriculum creates conditions for learning; a curriculum is thus inherently at odds with a decolonized classroom. Our curriculum design breaks from the binary of canon versus periphery by explicitly foregrounding traditionally marginalized artworks, theory and criticism, and using power analysis as the basis for understanding the creation, circulation and contextualization of art objects. Power analysis begins by approaching any text or object with a series of questions, asking:

  • who (Who is speaking? Who is listening? Who is represented and who is absent?)

  • what (What is studied? What is missing?)

  • how (How do I know where this information comes from? How was this information constructed?)

  • why (Why is this studied? Why is this important?).

In this way, we can begin to untangle objects from their traditionally hegemonic interpretations and to complicate normative narratives of art and their place in the Western canon. Our curriculum seeks to apply power analysis as the ‘fierce critical interrogation’ that is ‘the only practice that can pierce the wall of denial consumers of images construct so as not to face that the real world of image-making is political’ (hooks, 2015: 5). Such a power analysis accounts for the conceptual and mechanical structures of power that maintain systems of domination by recognizing structures of imperialist thought that are embedded from the macro-level – as in the framework of the academy itself – to the micro-level – in the texts we teach, for example.

We must therefore be intentional in our curriculum to recognize those scholars and methods that take up such strategies. Indigenous scholars such as Leanne Simpson (2004: 373), who engage decolonial methods and pedagogies, point to the importance of Indigenous learner self-determination in decolonial praxis. To support student self-determination, our curriculum is designed with two courses that serve as bookends for a student’s journey through the major. Art, Power, and Society is offered annually in the spring quarter. This entry-level course, required for art history majors and minors, is the front end of the art history curriculum, while the course Ways of Seeing serves as the senior capstone seminar.

Structured, critical reflection lies at the heart of our redesigned curriculum. Hibajene Shandomo (2010: 101) writes, ‘Critical reflection blends learning through experiences with theoretical and technical learning to form new knowledge constructions and new behaviors or insights.’ As we implement our new pathway through the Art History major, Butler and Hahn have coordinated the assignments for Art, Power, and Society and Ways of Seeing so that students have the opportunity to reflect on and integrate aspects of their art historical training into their overall intellectual growth and development. We have also developed an assessment plan to track students’ understanding of decolonized methods in pedagogy to determine their efficaciousness for future iterations of the classes.

Art, Power, and Society is designed to help students think about their responsibilities towards political and social engagements as artists, thinkers, activists and participants in society. They consider questions of power and art, both in terms of power in the art world, and how art that challenges power and power relationships disrupts social norms and conventions as well as systems of power or power matrices. In the second week, the students read Carolyn Dean’s (2006) important article ‘The trouble with (the term) art’. Here, Dean (2006: 27) lays bare the discourses and origins of art history that organize and formalize visual culture on a European scale, arguing that ‘calling something art reveals nothing inherent in the object to which the term is applied; rather, it reveals how much the viewer values it’. Students thus begin the course with a questioning of art itself. Throughout the course they are encouraged to interrogate that which is now, and that which has been, called art, by and for whom, and in what contexts.

To enable students to grapple with these questions, the course aims to develop in students the methods by which they can engage in a critical self-reflection that will grow into active self-decolonization. One of the major assignments in the course, the Animating Question project, encourages students to enact power analysis and critical inquiry. An animating question is a simply phrased question, relevant to the themes of the class and referencing some aspect of the student’s self, that produces a complex and wide-ranging discussion: ‘What is Blackness?’ or ‘What is queerness?’, for example. Such a question does not have one answer; it has many that may hold true simultaneously. These answers give rise to additional productive questions that promote an expansion of critical thinking.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012: 120–1) describes the Indigenous research agenda as ‘constituting a programme and set of approaches that are situated within the decolonization politics of the indigenous peoples’ movement … [a representative] chart uses the metaphor of ocean tides’, as illustrated by a series of concentric circles with self-determination in the centre. For our purposes, the self-determination aspect of the research agenda that Tuhiwai Smith (2012) describes is conceptualized as ‘self-reflective research’, that is, research that considers the researcher’s own positionality and impetus for pursuing such research. The goal of self-reflective research is to help students conduct research in which the self is an ever-present question, to pull back the mask of ‘objectivity’ in research. In considering positionality and rationale, students participate in active self-decolonization by examining how they are accountable to this research and to themselves. Self-reflective research is thereby part of a process of self-decolonization.

The Animating Question project activates self-reflective research in students by asking them to research a theme from the class from the perspective of its impact on, and import to, their own lives. Students determine their question by the end of the first week. The early start to this project has two interrelated outcomes: it reveals to the students that having an unformed and imperfect question is, in fact, an essential part of self-reflective research, and it demonstrates to students that research and self-reflection require time. With the additional nine weeks in the ten-week quarter, students complete weekly research using a variety of methods that combine academy-style research with ways of inquiry and knowing that have often been excluded from colonized knowledge, such as oral histories, experiencing themselves as agents in the world and constructing their own archives.

As seniors, students revisit these animating questions in the senior seminar, Ways of Seeing, by developing an intellectual narrative. The parameters (including format) for the intellectual narrative assignment are purposefully left open. Often this makes students feel anxious at first, as they are accustomed in many of their classes to having an assignment prompt that is specifically laid out (down to the font size). But the open-endedness is intentional, because one of the goals of the intellectual narrative assignment is to begin to prepare students for their capstone experience at Kalamazoo College, the Senior Individualized Project. While many colleges and universities may require some sort of research project of this type as a component of receiving honours, Kalamazoo College is one of few institutions in the United States to require this type of independent work from all of their students. For some of the students at Kalamazoo College, the Senior Individualized Project will be their first experience of constructing an independent project. The decolonized art history curriculum prepares students for this capstone experience, with its emphasis on self-reflection and critical inquiry applied throughout each course they take and whatever material they study. Drawing on their animating questions and intellectual narratives, our students will be prepared for the independent work of the Senior Individualized Project and, more importantly, will be prepared to apply the tools of the decolonized curriculum to their lives beyond their time as undergraduates.


We designed our initial assessment methods around practices outlined by Tuhiwai Smith (2012: 127) in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples, in which she argues that ethical decolonized research methodologies begin with assuming ‘that people know and can reflect on their own lives, have questions and priorities of their own, have skills and sensitivities which can enhance (or undermine) any community based projects’. Self-reflection must play a critical role in assessment for both faculty and students who are engaged in the process of decolonizing the art history curriculum. Our assessment methods therefore include student–faculty co-collaboration on rubric development; self-reflective evaluation for students and faculty through qualitative methods (interviews, written work and creative work); and assessing student and faculty development over time with periodic meta-analysis every three years. Our assessment methods also prioritize storywork as an important way of knowing for both students and faculty, and, to that end, shared self-reflective narratives and reflections are an important component of our assessment process.

Rubrics are helpful tools for identifying the core skills that our decolonized curriculum hopes to develop. They bring focus and provide targeted feedback and data at all levels, whether it is for a student working on a project, a faculty member assessing a class or a department assessing their overall programme goals. Our department developed a collaborative rubric for Studio Art Senior Projects several years ago. We collectively review the rubric annually, refining and tweaking it to better reflect desired student outcomes. We have found that a studio art-based model for rubrics captures the skills in critical thinking that we seek to cultivate and foster with the new Art History curriculum. As a result, our rubric relies heavily on existing models, particularly the excellent example by Tracy Hare (2017), Studio Habits of Mind. Based on this experience, collective rubric writing will be woven in throughout our assessment methods. An example of a project rubric is shown in Table 1.

Table 1:

Sample student project rubric, adapted from Tracy Hare (2017), ‘Studio Habits of Mind’, and Kalamazoo College, Department of Art and Art History, ‘Senior Studio Art Independent Project Rubric’.

4 3 2 1
Engage and persist I challenged myself to embrace the project and developed a distinct focus within my work. I developed a project with focus. I struggled to focus on developing the project. I lost focus on the project, and my project lost clarity and cogency as a result.
Envision I imagined and practiced many ideas and processes before beginning my project. I considered and tried out a few ideas before beginning my project. I started and continued my project with little envisioning or exploration. I started and completed my project with no consideration of the end product.
Express My work clearly conveys an idea or a concept and develops a point of view, an argument and/or analysis that shows an awareness of my audience. My work communicates an idea or a concept, with some awareness of my audience. My work communicates an idea or a concept, but some technical and conceptual flaws hindered communicating those ideas to my audience. My work sought to communicate an idea or a concept, but its execution possessed considerable technical and conceptual flaws that made it challenging for my audience to understand.
Observe and develop I stayed curious throughout my research, questioning my project from multiple different angles. I allowed the project to develop based on my research. I approached my research questions from a few different angles. The project developed from its initial concept. My project did not develop considerably from the start to the end. My project was conceived and executed without any evidence of development from beginning to end.
Stretch and explore I challenged myself to move outside my comfort zone with this project and learned from my mistakes. I shared and learned from my peers in developing my project. I developed a project that felt new to me. I listened to and incorporated feedback along the way from my peers. I relied on areas I felt comfortable with in developing my project. My project was stable and competent, but it did not challenge me. My project was fixed from the beginning on topics and concepts I already felt comfortable with before taking the class.
Understand the art world I spent time exploring aspects of artwork and art worlds that I had not encountered before. I spent some time discovering aspects of artwork that I was unfamiliar with before. I relied on artists and artworks I was familiar with already. I did not spend time trying to explore artworks and art worlds.
Reflect I cultivated mindful awareness towards my project, its process and development and conducted honest self-evaluations to move my project forward. I was honest in my self-evaluations as my project progressed, and it motivated me to continue developing my work. I was uncomfortable engaging in self-reflection during the project, and thus it had minimal impact on developing my final project. I did not spend any time trying to reflect on the process of the project.

We have also developed an anonymous survey that we administer along with course evaluations at the end of the quarter. These types of targeted evaluations allow us to track cohort development, help guide the remainder of the course and facilitate better future planning. The survey questions are in Box 1.

Box 1:

Survey questions.

Course Assessment: Decolonizing Art History

Part 1: Knowledge Assessment

This section asks you to evaluate your knowledge PRIOR TO and AFTER your class in several key areas. Use the 1–10 scale, where 1 is novice and 10 is advanced.

Please rate your knowledge of decolonization PRIOR TO taking this class, with 1 being novice and 10 being advanced.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Please rate your knowledge of decolonization AFTER taking this class, with 1 being novice and 10 being advanced.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Please reflect on how you thought about decolonization prior to this course and whether that definition has changed, expanded or stayed the same during this quarter:

Please rate your knowledge of systems of oppression PRIOR TO taking this class, with 1 being novice and 10 being advanced.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Please rate your knowledge of systems of oppression AFTER taking this class, with 1 being novice and 10 being advanced.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Please reflect on how you thought about systems of oppression prior to this course and whether that definition has changed, expanded or stayed the same during this quarter:

Part 2: Methods Assessment

This section asks you to think about WHAT you learned (i.e. specific content that you were responsible for knowing) and HOW you learned (i.e. how you were guided to learn and develop as a thinker) in this class, using a scale of 1 to 10.

Please rate the balance between emphasis on WHAT was to be learned and HOW it was learned, where 1 is most emphasis placed on WHAT and 10 is most emphasis placed on HOW.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Please describe some of the methods of learning (i.e. how you were guided to learn and develop as a thinker) that were effective for you. This could include activities, assignments, texts or materials, and community or atmosphere in the classroom.

Part 3: Free Response

Please give some examples of how this course and instructor addressed antiracist and anti- or decolonial issues, and how the course itself was invested in such strategies. Thank you for your feedback.

Because most students will enter the major as sophomores, and complete their degree two years later, we will be conducting a meta-analysis every two years that we plan to share with our Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Critical Ethnic Studies departments, soliciting their input and insights. The meta-analysis will include data from the pre-test and post-test from our courses, as well as project rubrics that chart growth and development from the Animating Question to the Intellectual Narrative assignments. Butler and Hahn will retain examples of these assignments that represent the different levels (no growth, growth and exceptional growth) in acquiring and utilizing decolonial theories and methodologies in a student’s development through the curriculum. Our programme meta-analysis will also be submitted as part of the Art Department’s biennial self-assessment, a report required by the college and reviewed by the Assessment Committee, a group comprised of faculty from different divisions.

Last, as programme faculty, we must also apply the programme goals of critical inquiry and frequent, iterative structured reflection to ourselves. Indeed, our collaborative work on this article has helped shape and guide our developing approaches. Our department will be collectively reading this article soon after its publication, with a plan to intentionally allocate time throughout the next academic year to share out and learn from one another about which aspects of decolonized pedagogies have been implemented, which succeeded, and which met with challenges. These conversations will provide the opportunity to think through the continued tension of attempting decolonizing work within a discipline, institution and system that replicate in their very functions the oppressive schemas that we try to work against. Working together, we will return to our programme goals and review how our courses have met these goals throughout the quarter. We note any areas of programme goals and SLOs that have not been adequately prioritized and specify how we will address these opportunities in the next quarter.

By decolonizing the Art History curriculum, our desired outcome is for all of us, students and faculty alike, to build greater awareness of how knowledge is constructed and to put into practice the deep implications of this awareness. As a department, we are committed to the long-term work of implementing these important and necessary changes to decolonize our curriculum, while recognizing that the process will feel partial, fragmentary and messy. Through our conversations and shared reflective process, however, we also gain momentum, support and energy for enacting change from within the institution. In Decolonizing Methodologies, Tuhiwai Smith (2012) delineates two distinct pathways through which an Indigenous research agenda can be advanced: community action projects on the one hand and creating space within institutions on the other hand. But Tuhiwai Smith (2012: 125) reminds us that it is important to recognize that these pathways are not antagonistic to one another, but rather, ‘intersect and inform each other at a number of different levels’. She writes that ‘university researchers who work within the protections of such notions as academic freedom and academic research can legitimate innovative, cutting-edge approaches’ to decolonized research practices (Tuhiwai Smith, 2012: 125). While we as faculty must sit with the irreconcilable ambivalence of working within a system of oppression, we must also remain mindful of our power and privilege within said system and create spaces of mindful resistance through collaboration, conversation and mutually sustaining support in the endeavour to decolonize higher education.


Kalamazoo College has an open curriculum with very few graduation requirements. As a result, the majority of students will construct a series of majors, minors and concentrations across broad fields of inquiry. Most of our students will take only one or two art history courses during their time as an undergraduate. Far fewer will end up majoring, and an even smaller number will go on to work in the discipline. Learning how to decode and decipher the visual world benefits all students, however, not just those pursuing an art history major. As students at Kalamazoo integrate their experiences through coursework, co-curricular participation, experiential learning and study abroad or away, the skills they develop continue to build on and reinforce one another, connecting in unanticipated ways. For this reason, our student learning objectives are focused on the methods of critical inquiry and self-reflection, a set of tools that can be applied in any situation and aspect of study, no matter the area or discipline. The connections, skills and experiences woven together by students represent the broader transformative value of a decolonized approach to education, in which students continue, throughout their lives, to draw on critical inquiry, curiosity and creativity as they encounter diverse, complex and multivalent worlds.

Decolonizing the art history curriculum serves as a template for the humanities, and for higher education more broadly. This approach emphasizes a mode of critical inquiry, probing the heuristics of a discipline. Sara Ahmed (2012: 21) draws our attention to how institutions maintain oppressions through their assumed stability and argues that the adoption of diversity into the institution allows diversity work to operate under the parameters of that institution: ‘when things become institutional, they recede. To institutionalize x is for x to become routine or ordinary such that x becomes part of the background for those who are part of an institution.’ In introducing a decolonized art history curriculum and committing to faculty self-assessment and reflection, Butler and Hahn intend to disturb the complacent ‘diversity’ of the neoliberal institution. The ‘decolonizing the curriculum’ project is our response to the need to work on our institutions from within them. In doing so, we recognize both our capability to make change from within our college and also the reality that this change does not, by itself, have the capability to bring about true decolonization.


The process for developing our new curriculum has embodied the decolonized practices with which we hope to engage in the curriculum. For both Butler and Hahn, the desire for a new approach began with curiosity with and towards the curriculum we had inherited. By asking why and how, we began to work towards articulating a process to translate our plans into action. This article is one element of this process, as it represents the first time we, as scholars in the humanities, have written a paper in collaboration both with other colleagues and with our students. We also see collaborations with colleagues and interlocutors as another aspect of the process of decolonization in our curriculum, in our field and in the academy. We therefore encourage readers to contact us for documents including syllabuses and assessment materials not included here for reasons of space, and for discussion and dialogue.

Our process began with both individual and joint self-reflection, and in many ways our new curriculum is the manifestation of our own animating questions and a reflection of our own intellectual narratives. While we are steeped in the ways and means of white settler colonialism and the education system it begat, our new curriculum seeks to honour the disruptors who have profoundly influenced us in disorienting us to the academy. As Ahmed (2020: n.p.) writes:

we learn about institutions from our efforts to transform them. Or to evoke Audre Lorde, we learn how the master’s house is built when we try and dismantle that house. … To open spaces up requires more than opening a door or turning up; sometimes you have to throw wrenches in the works, to stop things from working.

There is so much work to be done to ‘stop things from working’ within the institution of higher education. We view our approach as one imperfect, messy and partial attempt to open up space for a new way of understanding histories of art.

Notes on the contributors

Anne Marie Butler is Assistant Professor of Art History and Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Kalamazoo College, where she teaches courses at the intersection of visual culture and gender studies. Her research areas are global contemporary art, Middle East North Africa studies, gender and sexuality studies and queer theory.

Christine Hahn is Associate Professor of Art History at Kalamazoo College. Her research and teaching studies how the history of exhibitions, architecture and public art have shaped both individual and national identities in the twentieth century, with a particular emphasis on South Korean art after 1953.

Declarations and conflict of interests

The authors declare no conflicts of interest with this work.


We first acknowledge the Council of the Three Fires, whose land we continue to occupy, and thank the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi – the Anishinaabe peoples. We thank the student researchers who worked on this project, Dominic Moore and Julia Woods, and the Kalamazoo College Faculty Development Committee for providing research stipends to these students. We also thank the students in our department and in our classes who challenge and motivate us every day. Additionally, we are grateful for the feedback we received from the two anonymous reviewers.


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